Like a tribal warrior in the Ramayana, throwing dice, juiced on soma, I want to tell some stories and brood out loud. But it’s tricky. My favorite stories are all about what they did to me. What I’ve done to myself, I am inclined to repress, sublimate or rationalize. Once upon a time, I was a Wunderkind. Now I’m an Old Fart. In between I’ve done time at National Review, Pacifica Radio and The Nation; the New York Times and Condé Nast; New York magazine during and after Rupert Murdoch; National Public Radio and the Columbia Broadcasting System. I was a columnist for Esquire, whenever Dwight Macdonald failed to turn in his “Politics” essay; at the old weekly Life before it died for People‘s sins; at Newsweek before the Times made me stop contributing to a wholly owned subsidiary of its principal competitor; at Ms. during its Australian walkabout interim; and at New York Newsday before it was so rudely “disappeared” by a Times-Mirror CEO fresh to journalism from the Hobbesian underworlds of microwave popcorn and breakfast-cereal sugar-bombs. And I have written for anyone who ever asked me at newspapers like the Washington Post, the LA Times and the Boston Globe, at magazines like Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue and Playboy, and at dot-coms like Salon. I like to think of myself as having published in the New York Review, The New Statesman, the Yale Review and Tikkun. But there was also TV Guide.
This sounds less careerist than sluttish. It is, however, a sluttishness probably to be expected of someone who had to make a living after he discovered that the novels he reviewed were a lot better than the novels he wrote. We may belong to what the poet Paul Valéry called “the delirious professions”–by which Valéry meant “all those trades whose main tool is one’s opinion of one’s self, and whose raw material is the opinion others have of you”–but reporters, critics and “cultural journalists,” no less than publicists, are caged birds in a corporate canary-cage. Looking back, I see what I required of my employers was that they cherish my every word and leave me alone. If I understand what Warren Beatty was trying to tell us in the movie Reds, it is that John Reed only soured on the Russian Revolution after they fucked with his copy.
On the other hand, as Walter Benjamin once explained:
The great majority of intellectuals–particularly in the arts–are in a desperate plight. The fault lies, however, not with their character, pride, or inaccessibility. Journalists, novelists, and literati are for the most part ready for every compromise. It’s just that they do not realize it. And this is the reason for their failures. Because they do not know, or want to know, that they are venal, they do not understand that they should separate out those aspects of their opinions, experiences, and modes of behavior that might be of interest to the market. Instead, they make it a point of honor to be wholly themselves on every issue. Because they want to be sold, so to speak, only “in one piece,” they are as unsalable as a calf that the butcher will sell to the housewife only as an undivided whole.
I throw in Walter Benjamin, who killed himself a step ahead of Hitler, to muss the hair of the academics among you. Having been to too many conferences where working reporters and media theorists reach an angry adjournment of minds before the first coffee break, I seek to ingratiate myself. If it’ll help to wear a Heidegger safari jacket, Foucault platform heels, Lacan epaulets and a Walter Benjamin boutonniere, I’m willing to bring the Frankfurtives and the Frenchifieds. Indeed, the production process of every major news-gathering organization can be thought of–in Foucault’s terms–as an allegory of endless domination, like hangmen torturing murderers or doctors locking up deviants. And whether they know it consciously or not, these organizations are in the “corrective technologies” business of beating down individuals to “neutralize” their “dangerous states”–to create “docile bodies and obedient souls.” How we escape their “numbing codes of discipline,” if we ever do, is more problematic. Somehow, art, dreams, drugs, madness, “erotic transgression,” “secret self-ravishment” and going postal seldom add up to an “insurrection of unsubjugated knowledges.” I like to think of myself as Patsy Cline. I sang the same sad country songs before I ever got to the Grand Ole Opry. After the Grand Ole Opry, I can always go back to the honky-tonks.
Another paradigm is sociobiological. Everything is hard-wired, from the behavior of ants, beetles, Egyptian fruit bats and adhesive-padded geckos to the role of women, the caste system in India, the IQ test scores of black schoolchildren and the hierarchy of the newsroom. If the people on top of this Chain of Being are mostly male and mostly pale, in the missionary position, talk to Darwin about it. They’ve been Naturally Selected. Moreover, inside such a white-noise system, there is a positive feedback loop between nature and nurture, thousands of teensy units of obedience training called “culturgens,” dictating what societies can and can’t do, obsessing in favor of patriarchy and “objectivity,” deploring socialism and “bad taste.” Having ceded ultimate authority, on the one hand, to the credentialed nitwits of the mini-sciences, and, on the other, to the chirpy gauchos of the media pampas, we may thus find it difficult, ever again, to think through dilemmas of personal conscience, which look a lot like bad career moves.
Molly Ivins, who was fired from the New York Times for saying “chickenplucker” in its pages, has admitted that if she ever dies, what it will say on her tombstone is she finally made a shrewd career move. Molly also claims that she’s actually played, on a jukebox somewhere, a country-western song called “I’m Going Back to Dallas to See if There Could Be Anything Worse Than Losing You.”
A third paradigm is novelistic. It’s amazing to me how much the controlled environments of both CBS and the New York Times resemble Tsau, the utopian community on a Botswana sand dune in Norman Rush’s Mating, with windmills, boomslangs, dung carts, abacus lessons, militant nostalgia, ceramic death masks, “Anti-Imperialist Lamentations,” a Mother Committee and an ostrich farm. And how similar the plantations of Murdoch and Newhouse are to Orwell’s Animal Farm and Kafka’s Penal Colony. Whereas Pacifica Radio and The Nation bring to mind Voltaire’s Candide. On these margins, where everyone is paid so poorly that office politics are ideologized into matters of first principle, a little more self-censorship might actually be a good idea. I am reminded of what Amos Oz said in The Slopes of Lebanon about the Israeli left:
The term Phalangist is derived from the Greek word “phalanx.” The phalanx, in the Greek and Roman armies, was a unique battle formation. The soldiers were arranged in a closed-square formation, their backs to one another and their faces turned toward an enemy who could neither outflank nor surprise them, because in this formation the men gave full cover to one another in every direction. The lances and spears pointed outward, of course, in all four directions.
The moderate, dovish Israeli left sometimes resembles a reverse phalanx: a square of brave fighters, their backs to the whole world and their faces and their sharpened, unsheathed pens turned on one another.
But, wherever, they always fuck with your copy.
So much for the Big Pixel. And now for the prurient details. And, stuck as I am on my periphery of books, movies and television programs, I can’t tell you for sure whether Tom Friedman, when he covered the State Department for the Times, should have played tennis with the Secretary of State. Or if Brit Hume, when he covered the White House for ABC, should have played tennis with President Bush. Or if Rita Beamish of the Associated Press should’ve jogged with George. Or if it was appropriate for George and Barbara to stop by and be videotaped at a media dinner party in the home of Albert Hunt, the Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, and his wife, Judy Woodruff, then of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and now of CNN. Or if one reason Andrea Mitchell, who covered Congress for NBC, showed up so often in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center was that she just happened to be living with Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Nor can I be absolutely positive that there’s something deeply compromised about George Will’s still ghostwriting speeches for Jesse Helms during his trial period as a columnist for the Washington Post, and prepping Ronald Reagan for one of his debates with Jimmy Carter, and then reviewing Reagan’s performance the next day, and later on writing speeches for him. Or about Morton Kondracke and Robert Novak’s collecting thousands of dollars from the Republican Party for advice to a gathering of governors. Or John McLaughlin’s settling one sexual-harassment suit out of court, facing the prospect of at least two more–and nevertheless permitting himself to savage Anita Hill on his McLaughlin Group. Or, perhaps most egregious, Henry Kissinger on ABC and in his syndicated newspaper column, defending Deng Xiaoping’s behavior during the Tiananmen Square massacre–without telling us that Henry and his private consulting firm had a substantial financial stake in the Chinese status quo.
* * *
For that matter, who knows deep down in our heart of hearts whether the nuclear-power industry will ever get the critical coverage it deserves from NBC, which happens to be owned by General Electric, which happens to manufacture nuclear-reactor turbines? Or if TV Guide, while it was owned by Rupert Murdoch, was ever likely to savage a series on the Fox network, also owned by Rupert Murdoch, who was meanwhile busy canceling any HarperCollins books that might annoy the Chinese, with whom he dickered for a satellite-television deal? Or whether ABC, owned by Disney, will ever report anything embarrassing to Michael Eisner, the Mikado of Mousedom? It wasn’t the fault of journalists at ABC’s 20/20 that Cap Cities settled the Philip Morris suit before selling out to Disney. But nobody quit, did they? Nor was it the fault of journalists at 60 Minutes that CBS killed another antismoking segment, to be immortalized later in Michael Mann’s movie The Insider; it was the fault instead of the CBS legal department, on behalf of a Larry Tisch who actually owned a tobacco company of his own, on the eve of the big-bucks sale of the network to Westinghouse. But nobody quit there either, did they? Not even aggrieved producer Lowell Bergman, till two years later. Nor have any of the Beltway bubbleheaded blisterpacks on the all-Monica-all-the-time cable yakshows quit in embarrassment and humiliation, renouncing lucrative lecture fees, after being totally wrong in public about almost everything important ever since the 1989 collapse of the nonprofit police states of Eastern Europe.
Stop me before I go on about the petroleum industry and public television’s shamefully inadequate coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, not to mention Shell Oil’s ravening of Nigeria. Or say something I’ll regret about the $5-11 million a year that the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer gets from Archer Daniels Midland, the agribiz octopus whose fixing of prices and bribing of pols got so much attention in 1995 everywhere except on the NewsHour. How suspicious is it that so many Random House books were excerpted in The New Yorker back when Harry Evans ran the publishing house, his wife, Tina Brown, ran the magazine and all of them were wholly owned subsidiaries of Si Newhouse? Is anybody keeping tabs on what Time, People and Entertainment Weekly have to say about Warner Brothers movies? What else should we expect in a brand-named, theme-parked country where the whole visual culture is a stick in the eye, one big sell of booze, gizmos, insouciance, “lifestyles” and combustible emotions? Where the big-screen re-release of George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy is brought to you by Doritos and the associated sale of stuffed Yodas, Muppet minotaurs, trading cards, video games and a six-foot-tall Fiberglas Storm Trooper for $5,000? Where the newest James Bond is less a movie than a music-video marketing campaign for luxury cars, imported beers, mobile phones and gold credit cards? Where Coke and Pepsi duke it out in grammar schools and Burger King shows up on the sides of the yellow buses that cart our kids to those schools, in whose classrooms they will be handed curriculum kits sprinkled with the names of sneaker companies and breakfast cereals? Where there is a logo, a patent, a copyright or a trademark on everything from our pro athletes and childhood fairy tales to the human genome, and Oprah is sued for $12 million by a Texas beef lobby for “disparaging” blood on a bun during a talk-show segment on bovine spongiform encephalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease?
And where, I might add, all of us “delirious professionals” sign away, in perpetuity, our intellectual-property rights, our firstborn children and our double-helix to synergizing media monopolies that will downsize our asses before the pension plan kicks in. Marx made a mini-comeback on the 150th birthday of his Communist Manifesto. But years before he wrote the Manifesto he was overheard to say: “Since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and exchanges everything, it is the universal confusion and transposition of all things, the inverted world, the confusion and transposition of all natural and human qualities.” In other words, if money’s the only way we keep score, every other human relation is corrupted.
* * *
There’s a great line in one of Grace Paley’s books: “Then, as often happens in stories, it was several years later.” Let me now get up close and personal.
Not long after I took charge of the Times Book Review, in the early seventies, I had a surprise visitor. Lester Markel, the editor who had invented the Sunday Times with all its many sections, the eighth-floor Charlemagne who was rumored like Idi Amin to have stocked his fridge with the severed heads of his many enemies, liked to stop in and sit a while, like a bound galley or an urgent memo. This was because, after his forced retirement, he wasn’t welcome in anyone else’s office. Alone among the editors of the various Sunday sections, I had never worked for or been wounded by him. I was, besides, a fresh ear. It was rather like chewing the early-morning fat with El Cid himself, propped up on a horse but secretly dead.
It turned out that Markel was writing his memoirs. And he was having trouble finding a publisher. I made some suggestions and some calls. Never mind the propriety of the editor of the Times Book Review lobbying a publisher on behalf of an author with a manuscript for sale. We achieved a contract. And I didn’t see Markel for months. Until, of course, galleys of his book came in. And so did he, with suggestions for reviewers. And I had to acquaint him with the etiquette of disinterested criticism. After which he fixed me with the blood-freezing basilisk’s eye. And I still had the problem of finding a reviewer who would pay Markel his due as a giant of yore, while not at the same time neglecting to mention his memoir’s tendency toward stupefaction–a reviewer who would not only be fair, but who would be perceived as fair by everybody else. I had already been burned by my predecessor, who left me for my very first issue a review of the memoirs of another retired Times executive, Turner Catledge, by one of his best friends at the University of Mississippi.
Let me digress for a moment to observe that a Times executive who wrote a book could always count on generous review attention so long as he was retired. As Wilfrid Sheed reminded us in Max Jamison, his novel about criticism: “They were soft, affable people who wouldn’t hurt you because they couldn’t bear to be hurt themselves. Paternal organizations were built on great piles of spiritual blubber.” But the same has not until recently been true lower down the totem pole, for the serfs. And these serfs write a lot of books. When Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and I alternated as daily critics we looked at these books the same as we’d look at any other. If we liked it or it seemed at least symptomatic of something compelling in the larger culture that we wanted to sermonize about, we’d review it. If not, we didn’t. Pretty simple. You’ll have noticed that in recent years books by Times employees are farmed out to freelancers. They are never reviewed by in-house critics. This, we are told, is to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest. Sounds good. Never mind just how often these outside reviews are actually negative. (I recall two in ten years.) But have you also noticed that this new policy means that all books by Times writers are always reviewed in the daily paper? Minus Saturdays and Sundays, there are 261 book reviews published in the daily New York Times every year. There are 65,000 new books published in the United States every year. Some of these books are more equal than others in the paper of record.
Back to Lester Markel, and the paragon I needed to review him. That paragon, clearly, was Ben Bagdikian–a hugely respected, eminently fair-minded, award-winning reporter, and also a gent, who had gone to academe. And he agreed to do the review. And then just when the days before publication of Markel’s memoir dwindled down to a precious few, Bagdikian called in a pickle. He had been hired by the Washington Post. And the Washington Post had a policy that prohibited any of its employees from writing for the New York Times. (The New York Times, in fact, had the same policy in reverse, which is why they told me to stop writing a TV column for Newsweek, which is owned by the Washington Post.) Anyway, Ben was stuck. Well, I needed to know, was he still willing to do the review if I could get the Post to make an exception in this one instance, to which of course we had entered into an agreement before he sold his soul to the company store? Yes, he said; he’d already done the work.
So I called Bill McPherson, the editor of the Washington Post Book World, whom I knew from literary cocktail parties, explaining my Markel problem and beseeching him to intercede on my behalf with Post pooh-bah Ben Bradlee, whom I had met once at a Harvard Crimson alumni softball game and another time, I’m sorry to say, in the Hamptons. A long week passed. Finally McPherson called. Bradlee would relent on Bagdikian, on one condition. And what was that condition? It was that I, personally, agree to review a book of Bradlee’s choice for the Post. Done, I said, figuring I’d square it somehow with the Times. Which book? Well, Bradlee hadn’t made up his mind. OK, so I got my Bagdikian review, which was as scrupulous as I’d hoped, and published it, which stung Markel to furious rebuttal in a letter to the editor, which received from Bagdikian a mildly puzzled response, which correspondence dragged on intolerably until I called it off, after which I never saw Lester Markel in my office again.
But that’s not the point of this story. A year later the phone rang, and it was McPherson, and he said: “Bradlee’s calling in his chit.” Which book, I asked? Well–and McPherson was embarrassed–Sally Quinn is about to publish a book on her year at CBS. That’s the one. Many of you are too young to remember that there was a Ben Bradlee before Jason Robards played him in the film version of All the President’s Men, and that this Ben Bradlee left his wife for Sally Quinn, a reporter for the Washington Post “Style” section, and that this Sally Quinn then left the Post, very briefly, for a CBS morning show about which most TV critics had been savage, although at least one of us, me, had been lukewarm in Life.
Nor is the point of this story that I refused to write that book review. The point is that Lester Markel had no business in my office, that I had no business trying to find him a publisher or to arrange for a judicious review–and that Bradlee’s way is how the big boys play the game. While making sure your girlfriend gets a talked-about review, at the same time sticking it to your principal competitor. Only Bagdikian emerges with honor. Which, some years later, is exactly what I told a class Bagdikian taught in “The Ethics of Journalism” at Berkeley. These students, including my own son, were amused at an anecdote starring their professor, but didn’t get the ethics of it. It seemed sort of locker-room to them, as it seemed to grad students from the Columbia Journalism School in a seminar I later taught myself. They were all children of the triumph of a glossier idea of journalism that postures in front of experience, rather than engaging it; that looks in its cynical opportunism for an angle, or a spin, or a take, instead of consulting compass points of principle; that strikes attitudes like matches, the better to admire its wiseguy profile in the mirror of the slicks.
* * *
I am aware that my own regard for books is overly worshipful–one part Hegel, two parts Tinkerbell, with garnishes of Sacred Text, Pure Thought and Counter-Geography–at a time when most of the dead trees in the chain stores have titles like How I Lost Weight, Found God, Smart-Bombed Ragheads, and Changed My Sexual Preference in the Bermuda Triangle. But I also know it’s just as hard to write a bad book as a good one, and a lot easier to review one than achieve one, and if book critics in mainstream newspapers and magazines seem to have appointed themselves the hall monitors of an unruly schoolboy culture–this one gets a pass to go to the lavatory; that one must sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap–then it is a condescension and a contempt passed down and internalized from bosses like Bradlee, for whom the whole process is a whimsical scam. I’ve yet to meet a media heavy who didn’t think all of the books by all of his friends deserve fawning reviews. Nor have I met a media heavy who thought I should ever employ as a reviewer anybody who has ever criticized him or his friends. Max Frankel, who accuses me in his autobiography of trying to turn the Times Book Review into a combination of The Village Voice and The New York Review of Books, once called me on the carpet for using Timothy Crouse as a reviewer, because Crouse had made fun of his Washington press corps friends in The Boys on the Bus. Abe Rosenthal not only called me on the carpet for saying nice things on the daily book page about I.F. Stone and Nat Hentoff, but suspended me from the job entirely after I panned a book, The Second Stage, by his friend Betty Friedan. The next thing I knew, they’d killed a sports column I wrote, during the pro football strike, pointing out that the head of the Players Union, Ed Garvey, used to spook for the CIA. This of course goes beyond the butthole politics of the buddy-bond. It’s over in another office, where foreign editor Jimmy Greenfield killed a “Private Lives” column I wrote about the Philippines, back when the Frog Prince Ferdinand and his Dragon Lady were still in charge, and playwrights like Ben Cervantes were still in prison, and Greenfield in New York knew more about it than I did in Manila, where a goon in a blue jumpsuit followed me out of the Palace of Culture, all over the landfill in the Bay, unto a lurid jeepney.
This sounds like whining. It is whining. A primary characteristic of any news organization are subcultures of the crybaby and the gripe. (As if we ever had it harder than a schoolteacher, a factory worker, a farmer or a cop; as if we’d ever been threatened with redundancy, much less a firing squad; as if our slippery slide weren’t down into a wad of cotton candy.) And so I could go on about what happened to Richard Eder as the drama critic, and to Ray Bonner at El Mozote, and the class-action suit by the women of the Times, for which I was deposed, and Roger Wilkins, who quit the paper to write his own book (which I so incautiously reviewed), and Jerzy Kosinski, and Neil Sheehan, and Attica, and AIDS. I could even tell you about having to write my review of the first volume of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs two days early, so that it could go all the way to the top to be vetted, after which I was permitted to suggest that some of us, on hearing from Henry that his only sleepless night in public service had been on the eve of his first mixer with the Red Chinese debutantes–well, some us thought maybe he should have tossed and turned more often. And I still don’t know who cut the last two paragraphs of a review I wrote in 1970 about a couple of JFK assassination books. Those two paragraphs, asking perplexed questions about the sloppiness of the Warren Commission Report, simply vanished between the first edition and the last–an incriminating fact on microfilm periodically rediscovered by assistant professors of conspiracy theory, who write me paranoid letters that I dutifully forward to Abe.
No wonder that when Ed Diamond, while researching his book on the Times, mentioned my name to John Rothman, Keeper of the Archives, Rothman sniffed: “Some people just aren’t good Timesmen.” And then just as promptly edited himself: “Some people aren’t good organizational men.” I could live happily with that, had I quit on any one of a dozen fraught occasions. But I allowed myself to be promoted instead, and stuck around for sixteen years. And when I did finally leave, it wasn’t about a matter of principle. Those of us who go over the wall–who leave the Catholic Church or the Communist Party or the New York Times–usually decide at last to jump because of something small. You have swallowed a whole history of whoppers, but there is a fatigue about your faith. Without any warning, the elastic snaps, and you are hurled out of the closed system into empty space, and your renunciation, arrived at by so many increments, looks almost capricious. In my case, I decided to believe that the brand-new Vanity Fair would be a serious magazine, as did many of my friends. And so we entered the halls of Condé Nast like the children who followed Stephen of Vendôme south to Marseille in 1212, expecting the Club Med to part like a Red Sea, allowing us to pass over to the Promised Land. We were sold instead into slavery in Egypt. Well, it wasn’t that bad. Actually, I was in Jerusalem writing a story on Peace Now when they called the King David to tell me to come home, that they’d fired the editor who had hired me and it wasn’t going to be a Peace Now kind of magazine anymore. But when we leap over the wall, we always imagine that they, whoever they are, will love us more in the outside world. They will love us just as much, or as little, as we serve their interest.
* * *
But to finish with the Times: When I told them I was quitting, first they said I had promised I never would. Well, never say never. Then they explained, “The Times is a centrist institution, and you are not a centrist.” Fair enough, although the center sure had moved since they hired me directly out of the antiwar movement. Finally, they screamed at me: “We made you! You’d be nothing without the Times!” This surprised. It had never before occurred to me that they’d published what I wrote, two or three times a week, out of the kindness of their hearts–that we hadn’t been somehow even every day. For years after, I thought of this departing as Freudian-dysfunctional. Maybe they wanted to be our fathers. Maybe we wanted them to be our fathers. Oedipus! Peter Pan! Then I began to wonder whether there wasn’t about our servitude elements of an abusive marriage–tantrums, fists and fear; excuses, apologies and denials; dependency and self-loathing–battered wives and battered writers. Now, contemplating all the ghosts in this denial machine, I’m inclined to remember the theater tickets, and the stock options, and all the cocktail parties I got invited to as if I were important.
Paul Krassner, the Yippie editor of The Realist, once explained to a conference on “Media and the Environment” how to tell the difference between “news” and “dreaming.” When you see something you don’t believe, you should flap your arms like wings. If you seem then to be flying, it’s a dream. In this dreamtime, I am overdue at CBS, where I’ve spent the last twelve years.
Before I was hired at Sunday Morning, I asked for a free hand in choosing which television programs I reviewed, regardless of network. My own credibility was at stake. I was assured of a hands-off policy. That was three presidents of CBS News ago.
In fact, for the first seven or so years, I was, if not ignored, then rather negligently embraced as a sort of punctuation mark, a change of rhythm or a passionate parenthesis, in one of the vanishingly few network news programs to embody and cherish old-fashioned journalistic standards. When Sunday Morning wasn’t thinking about culture, its splendid idea of news was to notice that, hey, here’s a social problem; here are some people trying to do something about it; why don’t we spend eight whole minutes seeing if what they’re doing actually works? Those of you who only recall Charles Kuralt as a kind of Johnny Appleseed of avuncular anecdotes and homespun decencies need reminding that he’d been a fine reporter in Southeast Asia and Latin America; that he went to China at the time of Tiananmen, where his take was very different from Dr. Kissinger’s; that he expressed his doubts, over the air, about the Gulf War. It’s not just that he listened better than most people talk; he was an exacerbated conscience of his profession. He even refused to appear on the Murphy Brown sitcom: “I don’t know where the line is,” he told me, “but that’s crossing it.” With his passing, we were diminished in heart and jumping beans.
* * *
The world of television journalism has been changing, not since O.J. or Monica or the Internet, but ever since they discovered that news can be a “profit center.” I should have got an inkling my first year on air, when I reviewed a public-TV documentary on Edward R. Murrow, whose valor and grace made him our very own tragic hero. Emerging on CBS television from the radio and the war, he grasped the new medium’s power to modify the way a nation thought about itself, then watched helplessly as the medium pawned that power to the ad agencies, and smoked himself to death. He even looked like Camus, the Shadow Man of the French Resistance–Bogart with a microphone. We were reminded in the documentary that he’d been stunned when they opened the gates of Buchenwald. That he cared so much about words, he often forgot to look at the camera. That he made up See It Now as he went along, forever over budget. That after his famous demolition job on Joe McCarthy, Alcoa dropped its sponsorship of See It Now and William Paley, the Big Eye in the Black Rock Sky, turned against his best-known reporter, bumping the program from the prime-time schedule. That in his last years at CBS before he resigned in 1961 there were many more Person to Person chats with the likes of Marilyn Monroe than there had ever been exposés like Harvest of Shame, on the plight of the migrant farmworkers. What I should have noticed at the time was the allegorical nature of the Murrow story. In every institution of our society, but especially in the media, there have always been brilliant young men (and men almost all of them have always been) who find surrogate fathers as Murrow found Paley. For a while in this relationship of privilege, patronage and protection, these young men imagine they can go on being brilliant, on their own terms, forever, immune to the bottom-line logic of a corporate culture that, for its own reasons, has surrounded and preserved them in aspic. But we are not fathers and sons at all; we are landlords and tenants; owners and pets. It shouldn’t surprise the brilliant young men, and yet it always surprises the brilliant young men, when the party’s over and the pets are put to sleep.
I am once again peripheral to the larger story. But when CBS lost pro football, and then a bunch of affiliate stations, to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, everybody freaked. One Thursday, I went in as usual to submit a script for TelePrompTing, record the voiceover for my tape package and go home again to watch more television. Later that afternoon, the executive producer called. The then-president of CBS News–he’s gone now, Eric Ober, or how likely is it that I’d be telling you this?–had seen that I was reviewing a TV movie forthcoming on Fox, a feature-length reprise of the old Alien Nation sci-fi series, and he’d hit the roof. He had to go to an affiliates’ meeting next Monday morning. They would chew his ears off after hearing their own network promote a program on the evil empire’s competing schedule. I said I had been specifically promised that this would never happen; that, anyway–and never mind my poor powers to cloud anybody’s mind, including A.C. Nielsen’s–it couldn’t really be my problem if the stock of the corporation went up or down, or if the president of CBS News had to go to an affiliates’ meeting or a therapist. I was told they’d get back to me, and late that night they did. The president was adamant. Then, I said, I guess I’ll have to quit. Don’t be silly and overreactive, I was told. And then the executive producer handled me. A month before, I had proposed a piece about Doris Lessing, on the occasion of her 75th birthday and the publication of the first volume of her autobiography. Nobody, then, had been interested. But now, if I wanted to sit down immediately and write it up, they’d run it on Sunday in place of Alien Nation. Quid pro quo, Q.E.D., ad nauseam and beat vigorously.
It occurs to me that thirty years ago Life rejected one of my “Cyclops” columns, about Richard Nixon as a jack-in-the-box television President: Surprise! Look what Daddy brought home from the cold war! A secret bombing of Cambodia! Then, too, I vented at length to a sympathetic but helpless editor. The next day, Life sent me a brand-new color TV set–my very first. All night long, with my children, I shopped for friendship in the gorgeous beer commercials. So Doris Lessing is a sort of color television set.
What followed Doris Lessing–since, if I couldn’t review the network competition, I refused to review CBS, although cable and public television were still fair game–was some strong encouragement for me to branch out more, into movies and books. This made rationalizing easy. More books is always better. Free movies spice it up, even while you quickly realize that TV is more various and interesting. They still, amazingly, let me say exactly what I want to about abortion and capital punishment, racism and homophobia, misogyny and war. (We are hired for our stylistic bag of tricks, our jetstream vapor trails, not our politics. Had my politics been right-wing rather than left, somebody else would have overpaid for this vapor.) And there’s a new president of CBS News. If I combine network shows in a thematic clump, one from column A, two from column B, I’m back in the consumer-guide business. What’s more, this wandering in the wilderness has led me to realize that we end up, in the cultural-journalism business, reviewing the buzz more often than the artifact itself. That the more money spent on promotion, the more attention we have to pay, no matter what our opinion. If it is heavily hyped, it automatically becomes newsworthy. So long as we are talking about what everybody else is talking about, we will sound smart. Never mind the little foreign movie with the distracting subtitles–nobody else will review it, either. So I’m smarter now. Flap your arms if you think you’re dreaming.
The sad thing is that, since now at last I am old enough to be too old, almost, for network television–a demographic undesirable to the ad agencies–my very senior citizenship means that my children are out of college, I own the roof over my head, and I ought to be immune to the terrors of authenticity. I need not be beholden to those who choose to leak on me, nor belong to any hard-wired paradigm that imagines itself a fourth branch of the government, even a separate country, with its own pomp, protocols, dress codes, foreign policy and official secrets, lacking only its own anthem and maybe a helicopter beanie. And yet the Times paid for that house, CBS bought me a new kitchen, and in the last decade I have vacationed in China, Egypt, India and Zimbabwe. I’ve actually stayed in hotels like the Danieli in Venice, the Peninsula in Hong Kong and the Oriental in Bangkok, in spite of the fact that I know I don’t belong there–that you can take the boy out of his class, but not that class out of the boy.
This is the deepest censorship of the self, an upward mobility and a downward trajectory. Once upon a time way back in high school, we thought of reporters as private eyes. We thought of journalism as a craft instead of a club of professional perkies who worried about summer homes, Tuscan vacations, Jungian analysis, engraved invitations to Truman Capote parties and private schools for our sensitive children. We scratched down an idea on a scrap of yellow paper, typed it up on an Underwood portable, took it below to the print shop, set it on a Linotype machine, read that type upside down, ran off a proof on a flatbed press and seemed somehow to connect brain and word, muscle and idea, blood and ink, hot lead and cool thought. But that was long before we got into the information-commodities racket, where we have more in common with Henry Kravis and Henry Kissinger than we do with paper-makers, deliverymen and Philip Marlowe, or those ABC technicians who were so recently so alone, on strike, on Columbus Avenue. After which our real story is ourselves, at the Century Club or Elaine’s or a masked ball charity scam–Oscar de la Renta, Alex Solzhenitsyn and Leona Helmsley invite you to Feel Bad About the Boat People at the Museum of Modern Art–with plenty of downtime left, after we have crossed a picket line by e-mailing our copy to the computer, to mosey over to Yankee Stadium, where Boss Steinbrenner will lift us up by our epaulets to his skybox to consort with such presbyters of the Big Fix as Roy Cohn and Donald Trump, and you can’t tell the pearls from the swine.